Meeting Face-to-Face: ‘It’s Who We Are as a Species’

Author: Neil Brownlee       

live events

Photos or videos showing Scotland’s many historical sites, like Stirling Castle in Stirling, do not offer the same experience as visiting them in person. (VisitScotland / Kenny Lam)

Global Voices is a series of occasional editorials offering perspectives from international professionals in the business events, destination, and travel industries.

live eventsWho needs to meet face-to-face to do business anymore when we are now all part of the Zoom generation?

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us that we can all survive in business without the need to meet face-to-face. We can do everything we did before far more efficiently, simply through the use of online technology, which of course will get better, cheaper, and more accessible as time goes on. It will save us all time and money, mean that we don’t need to travel as much and help save the planet.

But, if you really believe that, you are missing the point of what meeting face-to-face actually means to us as a global community here in Scotland.

Firstly, a smile, a touch, a handshake are all part of human interaction, which is an inherent part of who we are as a species. No matter how much we might complain about not having peace and quiet, and our “own space,” we simply cannot avoid wanting to spend time with others — not looking at them on a computer screen via a phone line, but in the same room. Face-to-face. It is literally part of our DNA.

Secondly, we all crave and seek out shared experiences. Why is it that people will pay over 5,000 pounds to attend a live talk, when you can watch it free online at a later date? It’s the same content, you don’t need to travel and queue up to find your seat, you can simply sit on your sofa in the comfort of your own home and watch exactly the same thing as those people paying 5,000 pounds.

But that’s the point. It’s not the same. You are not enjoying that shared experience. The feeling of being there at that exact moment when the speaker tells that life-changing story. It’s a totally different experience. Watching Scotland play England in the Six Nations on television is an amazing thing. Watching it in a crowded Edinburgh pub with a group of friends while having a beer is even better. But actually, being there, in the stadium, watching every moment and being part of something bigger, something collective — that’s something magical. And there’s another point; why does a mega famous Hollywood film star who can command $50 million per movie, choose to perform on stage in a little-heard-of play in a tiny theatre in the East End of London? Why does a multi-platinum-winning musician, who fills 60,000-seat stadiums, choose to play an acoustic set in a university bar? It’s certainly not about the money. It’s about having that shared experience. That personal interaction that only events like this can provide.

Business events, which is what I am responsible for bringing to Scotland through our specialist team at VisitScotland — and which refers to a whole variety of events, including meetings, conventions, and incentives — takes a significant share of the 70 billion pounds that events deliver to the UK every year. In addition, it supports a significant number of jobs, many from within small independent businesses across every part of the country. By their very nature, business events rely on people meeting face-to-face — being in the same room together, talking, listening, and sharing information on the widest of topics.

Obviously, things have been pretty tough for our industry lately.

In 2019, Scotland accounted for 31 percent of all association events taking place in the UK. Cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, which are regarded as world-leading destinations for a wide variety of business events, were actually ranked higher than Melbourne, Vancouver, and even New York. Delegates from all over the world who attend these events not only help fill our hotels and restaurants, they use our taxis, visit our attractions, and spend money in our shops. In fact, visitors attending a business event will on average spend two- and-a-half times that of a leisure visitor and will be more likely to return again at a later date with family and friends.

But this is only a small part of the value that business events bring to Scotland. Events of this nature provide a showcase for our world-leading sectors, our products, innovation, and cultural heritage. They provide opportunities for inward investment, creating more jobs and exports.

Events also provide all of us with a sense of place, across the farthest and smallest of communities. When global associations, companies, and societies come together to meet in one place, they help shape and define that place. They bring new thinking and opinion. They bring that undefinable something that helps make a place what it is, and more importantly, what it could be. It’s not about the past, or the present, it’s about the future. Business events can help shape and define a community. They can help tell a story of innovation. A story of belonging. A story of hope. A story of what could be.

By bringing people together to share ideas, views, opinions, knowledge, and experience from all over the world, we can influence and shape the communities in which we all live and work. Quite simply, events connect us to the rest of the world and business events are crucial to Scotland’s recovery, and Scotland’s future.

By bringing thousands of people to our country each year to meet in our communities, we not only boost our economic exports, but our cultural ones as well. Business events give us the opportunity to reveal the extraordinary talents and creativity of our people, and to share that in ways that simply aren’t possible to do in a virtual world.

There will always be a place for virtual events, especially during times like these. But that’s also why there will always be a place for theatre, when we have television, and live music when we have digital downloads. It’s all about having that shared experience and that human interaction — bringing people together on a shared journey to help make our country, and world, a better place for all.

Sadly, at this moment, we cannot welcome people to meet in Scotland. We all need to stay safe and protect each other. But as we begin to see the world opening up again, the business events community is working together to ensure that, as soon as it is safe to do so, we are ready. Ready to help people to connect and share once again. Ready to play our part in providing a place where ideas and knowledge can be shared and expanded upon by everyone, for everyone. Ready to meet, right here, in Scotland, and I for one can’t wait.

Neil Brownlee is head of business events at VisitScotland and a member of PCMA’s Board of Directors.